We are Butt Dust

“For God knows we are but dust and that our days are few and brief.” (Psalm 103:14) OK, those words are not much comfort in pandemic panic time, I know. But here’s the thing, it’s Lent, and words like those are traditionally used on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our mortality. God also knows, as do I as a member of the at-risk elderly crowd, that we don’t need any more reminders of our mortality right now.

So why quote those words today of all days? Glad you asked. It’s because of a story I read recently that made me chuckle, and I am a firm believer that we’ve got to have some humor in the midst of this darn crisis or we’ll all go off the deep end. It seems that a little girl was in church when she heard the pastor quote those words above, “we are but dust…” The girl immediately turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, what’s butt dust?”

The story doesn’t tell us how the mother responded, and I’d love to know. That’s one my kids or grandkids have not asked me. But it does remind me of another similar story I heard many years ago. Billy’s Sunday school class had a lesson on the creation story in Genesis one day, and that afternoon Billy tapped his dad on the shoulder while he was watching some sports on TV (remember those days?). When he got to a time out on TV Dad finally turned his attention to his son who said he had a question. Billy said, “Today in Sunday School we learned that God made Adam from dust.” “Yes,” the father said, “That’s right. But what’s your question, Billy?” “Well, our teacher also said our bodies return to dust after we die.” The father nodded getting a little nervous about where this conversation was headed. He was considering referring Billy to his mother for this theological question when Billy finished. “Well,” Billy said, “I just looked under my bed, and there’s someone either coming or going under there!”

Certainly COVID-19 is no laughing matter. I applaud the courageous job our Governor and public health officials are doing of taking what may seem like drastic measures to avert a catastrophe. None of us like having our lives put on pause with no promise of how long that hiatus from our “normal” lives may be. And the real effects of this crisis haven’t even hit yet. Once kids are home from school 24/7 and people living from paycheck to paycheck start facing hard choices on what they and their families have to do without things are going to get a lot harder very quickly. Tempers are going to get shorter; escapes from reality through entertainment or simple solitude are going to be among the first casualties. Social problems like homelessness, mental health resources, domestic abuse, and universal access to health care are going to be magnified every time the number of confirmed cases and deaths goes up.

The necessity of choosing to look for positives instead of being overwhelmed by the scary truth that we are all butt dust is the challenge facing each one of us. And it is a choice. We can choose to watch the depressing news all day or just get summaries of what we need to know a few times a day. It’s a choice to be irritated by the inconvenience of antsy children underfoot while we are trying to work from home or being grateful for a flexible schedule and more quality time with our families. I can whine and complain about how much I miss March Madness or I can choose to be thankful for time to catch up on things around the house and to get reacquainted with my wife.

Life is nothing but a series of choices. Life happens, and it isn’t always what we’ve planned or hoped it would be. It’s much too easy to feel like we are victims to what life throws at us. I go there all the time, and trust me it’s not a fun place for me or anyone around me. Life sucks right now for everyone, but much more for health care workers, janitors, grocery store clerks and stockers, and residents and staff of homes for the elderly. The best cure for having a pity party is to think about the fact that we are all butt dust – meaning we are all in this boat together. None of chose to be here, but being frustrated, angry or blaming someone else for the crisis is simply a waste of precious energy.

I started a gratitude practice several weeks ago before any of us knew Corona was something other than a beer. I think God knew I was going to need that practice to prepare me for this pandemic. As I’ve written here earlier, I’ve been surprised (and grateful) that the simple practice of being grateful for at least three things each day for 21 days would rewire my old brain and form a habit of being more grateful in general. Yes, I frequently slip up and revert to my old glass half empty personality, but not as much. Yes, these last few days I’ve had to be more intentional about actually looking for things to be grateful for.

For example, yesterday I was doing what used to be a simple task. We had some plumbing done this week, and I was struggling to put some shelves back together under my bathroom sink. Because I have a bad back and arthritis in my fingers getting under the sink and screwing the shelves together was, to say the least, not going well. After a couple of expletives my wife offered to help, which I of course ignored because my little male ego was threatened by admitting that I failed. But after several more futile attempts (and a few choice words) I finally gave up and asked for her help. It wasn’t easy, but I finally was grateful that she was able to do what I couldn’t instead of being angry that I couldn’t. Yes, it would have been much better for both of us if I could have been humble enough to ask for help much sooner; but that doesn’t mean I can’t even today be grateful that I’m not alone to deal with life’s challenges.

And none of us is alone in this crisis. We just have to get more creative, humble and grateful about how we find new ways to be in community while keeping a safe distance from each other. Let’s be grateful for the technology that helps us stay in fellowship with each other while remembering that some of the most vulnerable do not have that technology to use. More than ever we need to give thanks that we are indeed our sisters and brothers keepers. That’s a gift, not a burden; and every act of compassion we engage in will bless us even more than those we serve.

Faith for a Pandemic

Like many of you I have had a hard time tearing myself away from all the bad news about the corona virus. Maybe it’s just gallows humor or the old “laugh to keep from crying” strategy, but I have been trying to combat all the fear and trembling with humor. For example when the local news came on at lunch time today with “Breaking News” about another day of the Dow plunging like a lead balloon I found myself singing an old song from the 1960’s. Yes, I’m in the “at risk geezer group” for Covid-19, and that also means I remember song lyrics from my youth better than what I did yesterday.

The song for today begins with one of those profound lines: “Down dooby doo down down
Comma, comma, down dooby doo down down.” And reflecting on my disappearing retirement portfolio I changed the next lines to say,

“Going Broke ain’t hard to do.
Don’t take my funds away from me,
Don’t leave me broke in misery.
Don’t say that this is the end!
Instead of going broke
I wish that we were getting rich again.”

My apologies to Neil Sedaka and a lot of other artists who recorded “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” and assurance that I was home alone and didn’t inflict my lousy singing voice onto any other living creatures. Although if Alexa was listening she may have been traumatized.
On a more serious note the Scripture that is running through my head today is one from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Times of crisis force us to examine what really matters in life, what is really of lasting value. As all kinds of sporting events, performances, concerts and other gatherings are being cancelled we can use the time we normally would have spent there to reflect, pray and ponder where our treasures really are. Unlike most other parts of the world many of us Americans don’t really know what it’s like to “walk in the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4) Words of Scripture in times like these can become more than pious platitudes and be words of hope and assurance when fear threatens to shake the foundations of our faith.

So one suggestion for these troubled times is to be grateful for the gift of time to meditate on the real treasures of life. Give thanks for extra time with family, for time to check on your elderly neighbor. Formal worship services are being cancelled in some places as a valid precautionary measure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t worship wherever we are in whatever way nourishes our souls. Take time every time you feel the tentacles of fear taking hold to just breathe deeply and “Be still and know” you are embraced by the ground of all being that is bigger, stronger and more enduring than this or any crisis we will ever face.

New Year Epiphany Prayer

O gracious God of endings and beginings, the new year gives us a chance to reflect on our goals and recommit to aligning our will with yours. The new year is a time to let go of regrets and guilt that hold us back, and so we offer them now to you.
January is a time for new hope in old dreams–dreams that cannot be fulfilled with our puny new year’s resolutions. The challenges facing our world require revolutionary thoughts and action. Please show us the way to be revolutionary agents of love, peace and justice for all of your children.

We confess, Lord, that we often lose our way in the dark. Our hopes for the new year can get swallowed up in the darkness of last year’s problems and regrets. We are heartsick about the terrible fires in Australia, about our failure to be good stewards of your creation. We pray also today for our Jewish sisters and brothers and an end to hateful anti-Semitism. And we pray also for those full of hate that their hearts will be changed by the Light of the World.

We are also saddened by the endless cycle of war and revenge that breeds more violence. We pray for the troops and their families, and we pray for President Trump and the leaders of Iran and Iraq. Give them wisdom and direction from your Holy Spirit that they will be able to reduce tensions and bring peace to that war-weary part of your world.

The journey to peace in our world and in our hearts is long and hard, Lord. It’s full of detours, obstacles and false idols like King Herod. The light of your Son seems too often to be hidden by worldly darkness. We pray that you would save us from false promises of an easy way to your kingdom. Grant us courage and faith to persevere and follow your true North Star that always leads us home to you.

We know that we will never solve every problem the forces of evil put in our way, but don’t let that discourage us. Don’t let it stop us from making life better for those we can. Let us be mirrors that reflect the Light of the World to those searching in the darkness and lead them to the one who comes to show us how to live, how to love and how to pray.

T’was Two Days Before Christmas

T’was two days before Christmas and all through my mind thoughts and feelings are bouncing before and behind. On one channel bad news of the world on a continuous loop: refugee kids in cages; impeachment shots fired across a partisan chasm that divides families and friendships; violence rages in streets from Hong Kong to India; and climate crisis wildfires and extreme weather bombard our fragile planet. Another brainwave features heavy grief for the parents of a young man I will bury on Friday. A personal memory that my father would have celebrated his 98th birthday this day tugs at my heart competing with the siren song of consumerism Christmas.

And yet if I listen carefully beneath the static a still small voice proclaims a miracle where one day’s lamp oil lasts over a week—a secret humans have celebrated for millennia every time the solstice darkness surrenders to more minutes of daylight. Another voice chimes in “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I believe. And yet the cosmic tug of war between darkness and light still plays out in my frazzled brain. I drag my heels in futile resistance to turning the page of my mortality calendar into the December years of my life. Despair and hope swing light sabers to see which will rule the new year.

But I know in my better moments that incarnation doesn’t come when it’s easy or unneeded. It does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums,” but “silently, so silently” the the gift of hope is given where “meek souls will receive it still,” not in Time Square or St Peter’s but in a dark cave in a one-stable town where there was no room in the Bethlehem Hilton.

And by Menorah, or star in the east, or Solstice sunrise, the message resounds again and again – Let there be Light!

Holy Roller Coaster Whiplash

Diana and I went with some family members recently to an amusement park-first time in years, and I had no intention of riding anything wilder than a Ferris Wheel. But you know how peer pressure is even at my advanced age. So I rode a couple of the “milder” coasters, and I use that term loosely. I opted out of things that went upside down but discovered that the old wooden coasters bang you around even more than some of the newer ones. One called the Blue Streak finished me off, and I was glad to find my head still attached to my body when it was done slamming me first one way and then the other.

That’s how I feel about consuming news in any form these days. We all know the stock market has had more dips and plunges in the last two weeks than most coasters, but trying to keep up with the shifting sands and contradictions coming from the White House has been equally disorienting.

In just two weeks we’ve had 3 mass shootings, on-again off-again Chinese tariffs, strange talk about buying Greenland and a cancelled state visit to Denmark. More EPA regulations have been shredded; background checks have been on the table again and off once more. The Emma Lazarus poem on Lady Liberty has been rewritten, as have rules now allowing the indefinite incarceration of migrant children, and the aforementioned stock market highs and lows.

With that entire dizzying blur of reality coming at me I need to pray. Yes, I know “thoughts and prayers” have become a pious platitude that sometimes excuses inaction, but like that seat belt holding me into the roller coaster I need a solid grounding in something bigger and stronger than my puny self before I can even begin to know how to put thoughts and prayers into action. So, let us pray:

O God, I feel you calling me to a higher place where things will make more sense than the crazy world I’m living in. I love that feeling of being embraced in your presence. I feel you near me in summer nights when even the crickets are chirping your glory. I sleep securely in the faith that you never rest from watching over your children. A new day dawns in all its splendor, but then we crest that first big hill and the bottom drops out. The news is about bullet proof backpacks for innocent children and others who are frightened, alone, bereft of parents and life necessities because they come from the wrong side of an imaginary line we humans have drawn to divide some of your children from others.

The roller coaster of life careens around corners where we look for active shooters, past free-falling retirement accounts, endangered species, and climate refugees. We grasp at anything to hang on to as we fly up another hill only to plunge again into the abyss of loneliness and insecurity. We dare to open our eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of sisters and brothers hungering for food and others fighting the demons of addiction. We want to reach out to them, but we’re too afraid for our own safety to let go and extend a hand.

Values like compassion and kindness that we have relied on forever seem to be no more. Everyone is too busy hanging on for dear life to pay attention to fellow passengers on the coaster. We are connected and share a common fate, and yet we feel isolated and alone, helpless and at the mercy of those who build and operate the ride. We are only passengers, out of control.

Some people seem to like the chaos, the adrenaline rush, but it is too much, too fast for me. My mind can’t make sense of the 24/7 news cycle that bombards me with yet more natural and unnatural disasters. When will it stop? I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Lord! Are you on the coaster with us? Does it look less frightening from your perspective, wherever you are?

And then this part of the ride is over. We jerk to a stop and emerge on wobbly legs back into the broken world we call home; and soon we are searching for another escape from whatever new catastrophe awaits if we dare turn on the news again.

I need a sabbatical, a place of respite from the daily drama of Breaking News. But the world is too much like the amusement park, all noise and lights. I can’t see the Milky Way because light pollution robs me of the awesomeness of the universe. Traffic noise, cell phone notifications, construction crews bulldozing yet more trees and paving over more of Mother Earth. Make it stop, Lord! I can’t hear your still small voice above the din, and I have never needed to hear it more.

Oh, let me find that inner stillness, that holiness of true communion with you that transcends my fear, that smooths out the highs and lows of life, and calms my troubled soul so I can let go of my security blankets and extend an open hand to my sisters and brothers.

I am still, and you are God; and that’s all I need to know. Amen

Hide and Seek, Sermon on John 20:19-31

A young boy was out walking with his mother and out of the blue asked, “Mom, how big is God?” The mother thought a moment and noticed a plane flying overhead high in the sky. She pointed to it and asked her son, “How big does that plane look, Ryan?” He said, “It looks really small.” “Remember that when we go out to the store later today,” was the mother’s reply.

I’ve been thinking this week about a question Pastor Mebane asked in her Easter sermon last week. The text for last week’s sermon told how two of the disciples run to the empty tomb and find only Jesus’ grave clothes there. John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Mebane’s question was about how long it took between when the disciple “saw” and when he “believed.”

It wasn’t a total transformation at the grave because just a few verses later we are told “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” They are playing hide and seek with the wrong guy. Even locked doors can’t stop Jesus from finding them.

And Jesus’ command to the disciples and to us is that it’s our turn. Believing in the resurrected Christ is just step one. We need to be sent, to shed our grave clothes and go be the church in the world that is dying for Good News.
That does not diminish the fact that our fears are real. Doubting Thomas usually gets most of the attention in this story. I like Thomas. I identify with his honest doubt. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in pants of faith.” Honest doubt keeps us alive and growing.

There is no faith without doubt; they are two sides of same coin. Beucnher goes on to say that is not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church – but the absence, the seeking of true peace in the midst of our broken world.

We don’t know where Thomas was. John just tells us he wasn’t there the first time Jesus appears to the other 10 disciples. Maybe Thomas was the most scared. The disciples are hiding – but Thomas is even afraid to hide in the same place with them. That’s ironic because Thomas earlier in the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead is the disciple who says, “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus!” What happened? Maybe Thomas realized it’s easier to die with Jesus than to live with or for him? After all, the Jews or other oppressors can only kill the body. Jesus wants our souls too.

But see what happens when we give into fear and hide from God? God breaks down the barriers anyway – even thru locked doors. And when Thomas is not there Jesus doesn’t give up on him; he comes back a week later specifically to address Thomas’ doubt and fear. Faith is not a one-time deal like a polio vaccine. It’s a lifelong journey. One of my favorite biblical characters is the man in Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son of an evil spirit. When Jesus inquires of the man’s faith his honest response is, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Both Thomas and this father remind us that faith and doubt dwell in creative tension in all of us.

But I don’t want to focus on Thomas today. Instead I want us to look carefully at what Jesus says and does in these first post-resurrection encounters with his disciples.

John says the doors are locked in that upper room and Jesus comes right into the room anyway. How he did that is an interesting question we could explore, but that’s not really the point. Jesus coming into that locked room means that God breaks through whatever barriers we try to put up – whatever excuses we offer: I’m too old, too young, too poor, too busy, not good enough, too scared. “Sorry,” Jesus says, “it’s your turn now.”

One of the best Easter sermons I ever heard was by Bishop Dwight Loder, and the phrase I remember from that sermon is this. Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. He was not resurrected for the church. He was resurrected AS the church.” We are the body of Christ, and as such God sends us in mission and service to the least and the lost. We are transformed by the salvation of Christ, but the story doesn’t end there. We are transformed so we can go out and change the world into the Kingdom of God.

How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Do you want peace in your life? Don’t we all? We long for real peace that only God can give, the peace that passes all human understanding. And the secret to finding that peace is right here in John 20. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t send them out looking for peace on E-bay or Craig’s list; he imparts it into their hearts and then sends them out. We don’t find or create that kind of peace; it finds us, in the midst of our doubts, not after all our doubts are resolved.

How does that work? Notice what happens right after Jesus says “As God has sent me, so I send you.” “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” He breathed life into them just as God breathed life into humankind in the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit empowers before it sends us out to serve.

But here’s the catch – that powerful spirit only comes in surrender. True peace only happens when we are vulnerable enough to get up close and personal with God. You have to get very close to let someone breathe on you. The question is do we want Jesus getting that close? Invading our personal space, meddling with our priorities? That’s scary. But, if we let down our barriers and allow Christ into our hearts we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to humbly and obediently do justice and act mercifully – outside our comfort zones in the world God sends us into. To say with all the saints that have gone before us, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”

Now I want to circle back to young Ryan’s question about how big God is. That afternoon Ryan’s mom took him with her to go grocery shopping, but on the way she took a slight detour to drive by the city’s airport. She parked near a fence where the planes on the tarmac were visible and said to Ryan, “Do you remember how small that plane looked when we saw it today way up in the sky? Ryan nodded. “And how big do these planes on the ground look?” “They’re really big!” her son replied. And Ryan’s mom said, “That’s how God is. The closer we are to God, the bigger God is.”

Peace comes only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. I’m not sure I want Jesus or anyone to get that close. We have to really trust someone to let them invade our personal space. If we let Jesus get that close we might have a have heartwarming experience like John Wesley. We might get called out of our comfort zone to put our faith into action!

I don’t know what Jesus is calling you to do. That’s between you and God, but I do know that we will only find the peace and power to fulfill our calling if we let the risen Christ get close enough to breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into us.

Benediction – God is big enough to help our unbelief if we allow God to get close enough. Jesus finds us when we foolishly try to play hide and seek, and he says, “You’re it. I send you out, but only after I breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into your hearts.” Go in Peace. Amen

Lighting the Christ Candle

In the darkest of days we gather once more on this special night to celebrate the holiest of births. We come searching for God in a world that has lost its way. But lest we despair at the state of our world the familiar Christmas stories remind us that things were not all calm and bright that night in Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in a barn because Roman oppression forced his parents to make that painful journey. But there into that terrible situation came an incredible gift, not delivered by FedEx, but by a frightened peasant girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, announced by a heavenly host, and sent by almighty God who still loves our troubled world.

Tonight that gift comes again silently and calmly to those who have ears to hear the angels and eyes to see the star. It comes to those who take time to pause from the hectic activities of the season, [pause] to be still and at rest in the presence of a baby who sleeps in heavenly peace.

During the Advent season we have lit candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Tonight our waiting is over; our expectations are filled to overflowing as we again dare to light the Christ Candle, the light of the world.

Unison Prayer
O God of Grace and Glory, tonight our hearts are calm and bright, not because of our cares and concerns, but in spite of the things that keep us awake at night. As your Holy Spirit came upon Mary so long ago please send it again to us this very night. Conceive in us a new birth of joy and hope. Fill us to overflowing with your peace and love. Light in us again the eternal flame of your holy presence that we will go forth bravely into the darkness to do the work of Christmas, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to share with all our neighbors the light of the world that no darkness will ever overcome. Amen